Joel Wachs Vows to Lift 'Veil of Secrecy' in Government, Make City Departments More Efficient

The Business Journal presents the third in its weekly installments of interviews with the six major candidates for L.A. mayor. This week: Joel Wachs, a 30-year city councilman primarily serving the San Fernando Valley. Wachs met with Business Journal editors and reporters last week to discuss his reasons for running, his plan for increased neighborhood involvement in city government, his efforts to identify and reduce waste in city departments and other issues.

Question: Given that you made an unsuccessful run for mayor once before, why are you running again?

Answer: I want to give people in the neighborhoods more of a voice in government. My campaign is about transferring the balance of power from the few people who have it to the vast majority of people out there who are affected by the decisions and are expected to pay for them. They feel left out. This is what I've focused on throughout my career in politics. Neighborhood councils, which I've fought long and hard for, are one way to transfer the power. They are also a way the city can get the best out of its people, to get them involved in policing, schooling, economic development, the arts and a whole host of areas.

I also want to lift the veil of secrecy that surrounds government decisions, not just in the neighborhoods, but the really big decisions, like the budget and all kinds of ordinances. That's what I've been doing for 30 years.

Q: But under the new city charter, the neighborhood councils will only be advisory. They will lack any authority to veto projects going into neighborhoods, which has been a major criticism from homeowners' groups.

A: I've visited every city with neighborhood councils and, in every city St. Paul, Minnesota and Portland, Oregon among them the councils are advisory. They are not a new level of government. They work through the power that people gain when they have the ability to be informed and hold elected officials accountable.

And it's not just land-use issues. Let's take the Staples arena. I guarantee you that if we had had an early-warning notice in place then, you never would have gotten to the point where city officials were willing to give the developers the money they wanted. There was a classic example of the huge disconnect between the people who make decisions and the vast majority who have to live with and pay for those decisions. If there had been advance warning, there would have been a request for proposals for the Greek Theatre contract instead of the backroom deal that the council overturned only after I had raised the issue.

Q: Speaking of backroom deals, there's been a lot of attention lately on the special access granted to lobbyists. What will you do as mayor to curb the powers of lobbyists?

A: I'm the guy who has been in the forefront of campaign finance reform. I helped craft most of the laws we have now spending limits, contribution limits, disclosure requirements. Now I'm living by those laws, while unfortunately loopholes allow people who have their own money to spend whatever they want. I've even proposed laws forbidding council and commission members from voting on issues that economically affected people that had made substantial contributions. But those never got to first base because the people who have power in the system, who've learned to use the system, have fought these things off.

Q: There is a general sense in the last few weeks that your campaign has not been gaining momentum. Antonio Villaraigosa has been racking up major endorsements, while Steve Soboroff's face is everywhere in those media ads. What are you doing to try to get some momentum?

A: That may be what you perceive, but the truth is that there were three polls done last week and I came out on top of all three. One was done by my campaign, but another was done by the Villaraigosa campaign and the third was Kathleen Connell's. My lead is increasing in all three. My campaign is not about endorsements; it's about the support in the neighborhoods and the communities.

Also, my polling is showing that I do as well among Republicans as among Democrats. I don't really fit into a box in that respect. Having said that, I will admit it is harder to raise money, especially when I've stood up to all these interest groups all this time. But we will run a competitive campaign.

Q: What about those people who see Joel Wachs as part of a council that spends more time arguing than getting things done? People who believe we'd be better off with a mayor from outside city government?

A: It's not about whether you've been in office for 30 years. It's about what you've done in office. And people want someone with experience. People also care about character. They want to know if the person will stand up to the special interests that run this city. And they don't just want rhetoric here. My record backs this up. It's the experience that money can't buy. Steve Soboroff can have all the money in the world and put on all these television ads, but there isn't anything to back it up.

Q: Which of your rival candidates do you see as posing the biggest threat to making the runoff election?

A: I think that all five candidates are solid and are all to be reckoned with. You can't count any of them out. Having said that, I'm not running against the other candidates. I'm running for what I believe in. And much of what I'm doing in the campaign I would do anyway, even if the other candidates weren't there.

Q: What would be the first action you would take upon becoming mayor?

A: I would order a benchmark audit of all city departments. Several years ago, we had an outside audit done on the Department of Water & Power that confirmed what I'd been saying for years: the department is too bloated with too many people on staff, there's too much debt and the equipment is not being kept up. Well, once that audit came out, the DWP was eventually prodded into making the staff cuts, paying down its debt and making the right investments in plant and equipment. And look at the agency now: It's the envy of all California. That's the kind of attention that needs to be paid to every city department.

Q: What steps would you take to help business?

A: I think the benchmark audits of all city departments is a good place to start. Look, when I go out and talk to businesspeople, they all say the same thing: "When are you going to make government run more like a business, to make it more efficient?" That's what businesspeople want, to have an efficient government that is straightforward to deal with.

Then, on the economic development front, I think we have to have an overall strategy in dealing with companies that want city assistance. It can't just be doing favors for friends and well-connected lobbyists like what happened with the Staples Center or the Greek Theatre. If I'm elected mayor, there will be an even playing field and a well-thought-out strategy.

Q: What do you say to those business executives who look at your record and say: "Whoa! I'm not going to site any operations there with Joel Wachs as mayor. Look what he did to those people who built Staples Center there"?

A: Look, I wasn't against the idea of putting an arena there. In fact, I supported a jobs tax credit for the Staples Center. I just fought the public subsidy. I think such subsidies for billionaire developers are simply wrong. I've spent my career fighting people who get money just because they have the power.

Another thing businesspeople should keep in mind when they look at me: If I want a project, there will be a degree of certainty that I will follow through with it. And that certainty is something that a lot of people in the development community appreciate. They say: "Look, just tell me the rules and then stick by them."

Q: Let's look at the Rampart scandal, which many people say wouldn't have happened if we had implemented all the Christopher Commission reforms. Being one of the senior members on the council, why didn't you push harder for these reforms?

A: I called for the implementation of the Christopher Commission reforms from day one. You can check the records. And if there had been 15 Joel Wachs' on the council, those reforms would have been implemented years ago.

Having said that, I was the first mayoral candidate to call for an outside investigation of the Police Department once the scandal broke. You simply can't have a department investigate itself on matters like this. But only Police Protective League President Ted Hunt and ACLU chapter president Ramona Ripsten stood by me on this.

But the investigation should not be limited to the Police Department. The D.A.'s office needs to be investigated, too. How could they have ignored all these warning signs about bad cops and testimony that just didn't fit the facts?

Look, people want to make sure this doesn't happen again. But they also want the police officers to do their jobs. They see crime going up; meanwhile, morale is very low. It's not a case of either-or. They must do both.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.